Lyrical Musings: A Poet’s First Book and Life’s Fertile Ground
Annette Hinkle, The Sag Harbor Express
Sag Harbor’s Kathryn Levy has spent a huge amount of time teaching and promoting poetry as an art form. The founding director of The Poetry Exchange and the New York City Ballet Poetry Project, she has taught poetry to hundreds of inner city school children and has received numerous writing fellowships and residencies from foundations to pursue her own work.
But ironically, while Levy has been a public champion of poetry, when it comes to her own poems, she has effectively shunned the limelight. For Levy, a dedicated poet literally her entire life, public validation and recognition have never been a driving force.
“I’m terrific at promoting other people,” she says. “I would do things for my poetry organization that were shameless – promoting the kids work, haranguing people. But I find it very alien to do that for my own work.”
This, of course, runs counter to the tendencies of just about every other poet Levy has ever known.
“I have friends who are obsessed with getting every poem published – but I’m not,” says Levy. “It makes me a little weird – but I’ve always been a little weird.”
In recent weeks, Levy has gotten much more public about her work. That’s because “Losing the Moon,” Levy’s very first collection of poetry, has just been published by Canio’s Editions and this Saturday, she is scheduled to read at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor at 6 p.m.
By necessity, Levy has been spending a lot of time at home these days where she is nursing a broken knee cap. It happened about a month ago when she fell on the curb while rushing to pay a waiting cab driver. Despite excruciating pain, she went ahead with her plans for the evening and hobbled over to Lincoln Center where she met a friend, sat through a performance and only then, got herself to the hospital.
The cynics among us might suspect that the knee cap break, which came just two weeks before “Losing the Moon’s” release, is a convenient excuse for Levy to avoid the self promotion duties required of an author with a new book. But one look at the contraption enveloping her left leg will quickly remove all doubt – no one in their right mind would intentionally put themselves through that kind of pain just to avoid a couple of speaking engagements. Besides, Levy is not one to shirk her responsibilities and she will indeed be at the podium – or seated near it – when it comes time to read on Saturday.
“As John Lennon said, ‘Life is what happens when your busy making other plans,'” smiles Levy as she props her injured leg up on a footstool. “It’s one of the truest things I ever heard.”
Truth and the search for it is governs Levy both in her role as a teacher and her work as a poet. Levy acknowledges that she has sometimes spent years on poems, waiting for the perfect word, phrase or line that will make it an authentic piece of writing.
“I was working on one today called ‘Life,'” says Levy. “I haven’t been able to find the correct last line for about three years. I look at it and look at it. I’ve got 30 versions of the last line. It’s very important. You can betray or validate a poem in the last line.”
So while Levy has no trouble making deadlines related to the business of poetry – when it comes to the act of writing it, it’s a veritable waiting game.
“I can force everything else – reviews, essays, fundraising proposals,” she says. “But you can’t force a poem to work itself out until it reveals itself.”
Levy has found that on occasion, the way to find truth is to step back from reality. By looking at certain events through filters, she notes that a poet can actually arrive at the truth of a situation in a way that a literal recalling of the event never would allow.
Levy points to “Telling Stories,” the first poem in her new book which deals with the death of a dancer she knew at the New York City Ballet who took his own life by jumping from a building.
“He was an extraordinary person,” says Levy. “He was also a manic depressive. He was taking a combination of medications that were later found to possibly make you commit suicide.”
“I tried and tired to write about it, but couldn’t in any way,” says Levy. “You don’t want to falsifying it. I could write about the survivors and the stories they told, but I found they were not adequate.”
Levy was eventually able to write the truth of her friend’s death by substituting in her mind the image of a female dancer on a roof.
“In writing the poem, I found something I wouldn’t know without being a poet,” she says. “You find these masks that liberate you to write the poem.”
In teaching poetry, truth is also something that Levy stresses is vital in the work of her young students and she challenges them to find it.
“I created a throw away exercise for kids which is to write the absolute truth,” she says. “To be a poet you want to tell it. I told them I flew to Venus to get hot green coffee. I say do you believe that?”
When the students respond no, Levy explains how the surface details are different than real truth, and that by using masks they can often find the truly important part of the poem.
“The mask allows them to write true things,” she says. “By not being linear and literal, it allows you to tell the truth.”
Some of Levy’s inner city students have been as young as third grade and had witnessed some very difficult events in their lives. She understands first hand the vital role that poetry can play in the life of a child. Levy, herself, began writing poetry regularly at age 9 as a way to cope with a terrible home life.
“I had a nightmarish home – which is good for poetry,” says Levy, who explains that her mother, who is now institutionalized, was abusive and mentally ill. “You’ll note my book is dedicated to my father and godmother.”
“A lot of children who are embattled retreat into the world of books and writing,” adds Levy. “For me it was a powerful sanctuary. That sustained me. It didn’t matter what my parents said. I didn’t tell anyone about my poetry. I lived my own life.”
Levy’s difficult home life in Maryland was offset by glorious times spent with her godmother who lived in Manhattan, treated her to children’s theater and presented her with her first Jane Austen book.
“It may not have been an ideal childhood – but it was for a poet,” says Levy who throughout childhood and on into her adult years continued to write every day.
“I stopped showing my work to people at age 14 and didn’t show it to anyone again until I was 29,” says Levy. “I had a notion of Emily Dickinson, she only had seven poems published in her lifetime. I kept very quiet about it.”
Levy recalls the defining event that caused her to withdrawal from the public eye at such a tender age centered around the publication of an anti-war poem she wrote in 1968.
“I had a poem published in the literary journal of my junior high,” she says. “I looked at the poem in print and hated it with ever fiber of my being. Then I looked at another poem on the other page which I thought was better and very much avant garde.”
Though everyone who read the poem told Levy they loved it, she remained her own harshest critic and from then on, kept her work to herself.
“I got in the habit of living a quiet life as poet,” says Levy. “I probably wrote four hours a day. I was writing furiously every day. It wasn’t important for me to show it to anyone. Publication wasn’t important to me, showing it wasn’t important.”
That all changed when people close to her began dying.
“Then I went through this period when my father, godmother and even Balanchine died within six months of one another,” says Levy. Around the same time, she also lost close friends and saw a long term relationship with her lover come to an end.
“I realized I wasn’t in dress rehearsal for life and probably should show it to someone,” says Levy.
The manuscript that grew out of that difficult period in Levy’s life are the poems included in “Losing the Moon.” The poems have an ethereal quality to them, and many of them evoke the ghosts of regret – the desire to reconnect to loved ones in the face of loss – be it through death or a parting of ways. Ironically, though they both knew she wrote, neither Levy’s father, Sidney, or her godmother, Evelyn Goldberg, lived to see her work. She kept it private, even from them, until after their deaths.
Levy notes that while poets tend to rework their poems for years, putting them in book form is one way to bring the revisions to an end.
“I think it forces you to say the poem is finished,” says Levy. “If this manuscript wasn’t in a book form, I could’ve revised it again.”
But Levy has gladly gone on and is now writing about other topics, including politics – a subject rife with possibility.
“I’m very much a believer in moving on,” she says. “I’m more than done.”